Tuesday, April 23, 2019

R is for Religion

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

R is for Religion, an organized form of worship, of which Allston's GAZ1 provides us with three (two?) for Karameikos.

I got a little sidetracked this weekend, what with birthday parties, treasure hunts, baseball games, and Easter festivities. It was pretty busy all around, though fortunately everyone had a great time (the kids especially). Now...back to the grind.

B/X doesn't have any specific setting attached to it. Yes, there are some sort of gods (or goddesses); this is made clear in the B/X description of the cleric (see the quote in this earlier post); but it's left up to individual DMs to decide what the cosmology of their campaign setting looks like. Nothing is defined, faith-wise, in the Expert set's brief description of Karameikos, and the countries of the "Known World" described in X1: The Isle of Dread offers nothing extra (folks might infer from Thyatis being "similar to culture of the medieval Byzantine empire" that there is something there, but remember that no connection had yet been drawn between it and Karameikos).

None of the "B/X era" modules offer anything like a consistent cosmology...just random deities appropriate to the adventure (X1, X2, X3, and B3) or generic "lawful" chapels and "chaotic" temples (B2). The early (pre-GAZ) BECMI modules aren't much different; it's only with the advent of the "Mystara" concept that there starts to be anything like a setting cosmology (based on Immortals as pseudo-deities).

Dave Cook's B6: The Veiled Society is interesting for the picture it paints of Specularum, capital city of Karameikos. Written in 1984 (post-BECMI, pre-GAZ1) it states:

"The city has several churches, most for Lawful clerics. There are a few Neutral churches, but not many people attend. There are even Chaotic churches; these are very secret and do not advertise their existence in any way. If the characters need healing or similar help, they may obtain it if their cleric goes to his church. Of course, the player characters are required to make some type of offering (anything from flowers to magic items) and may be required to do some service for the church."

Recall that Mentzer's Basic set states that clerics are simply humans "dedicated to a great and worthy cause" and that this cause is "usually the cleric's Alignment." Furthermore, it is explicit that D&D "does not deal with [ethical and theological] beliefs, and they do not affect the game;" instead they are simply assumed "just as eating, resting, and other activities are assumed." Clerics draw their spell power from "the strength of [their] beliefs;" there are no religions or gods, no tenets of their faith, no prayers or divine rituals that need to be performed.

Cook doesn't seem to have gotten the memo...though one might have gathered as much from his 1983 module X5: Temple of Death (the whole country of Hule is steeped in religion and religious fervor). I suppose a church is an easy substitute for Alignment as a "worthy cause" of devotion (duh), but I'd hardly say this is an example of theological beliefs not being a part of or having an impact on the game...rather it is a motivator of action, even in B6 (first level characters are probably going to want healing at some point, and PC clerics receive no spells prior to 2nd level). At some point PCs will have to interact with these institutions and, presumably, whatever ethical and theological beliefs they have. Probably Cook's long association with D&D (for years prior to TSR's cutting the cross off of clerics) has something to do with his methods.

[ha! As written, there is absolutely no reason for clerics in BECMI to make use of a holy symbol, unless facing a vampire...and then the use is the same as any other player character. The description of the item is simply "A sign or symbol of a cleric's beliefs. Used in Turning undead." However, no mechanical/rules effect is provided. In B/X all clerics MUST possess a holy symbol (page X10) as it is a symbol of the deity a cleric serves. BECMI clerics can save the 25 gold]

Allston's approach in GAZ1, for the most part, is much more in keeping with the party line. As stated, Karameikos has three native faiths: The Church of Karameikos, The Church of Traladara, and The Cult of Halav. The Cult of Halav is much more a cult than a full-blown religion...it's members are true believers in Arthur-type legend of Halav, but other than waiting for his "coming again" (and believing that Archduke Stefan may be his reincarnation) they have no real laws or tenets of faith. Interestingly, Allston writes:

Despite the fact that most people consider the Halavists to be insane, it's a fact that their clerics do work magic. This means they must be receiving aid and inspiration from some Immortal.

...from which I infer that even Allston assumes gods (or whatever passes for them in BECMI D&D) are granting spells. *sigh* Makes sense, as he's the one who wrote Wrath of the Immortals.

The other two religions have codified commandments and discussions of "sin" but no mention at all of deities or how these religious doctrines interact with clerics and their magical spells. Here is Allston staying true to the definition of the BECMI cleric, even if he's not ignoring theological and ethical beliefs per Mentzer's instruction. However, between the two there is very little difference in doctrine...aside from wording and the Traladaran church's encouragement to engage in superstition and stereotype Gypsy fortunetelling, the main difference I see is that the Church of Karameikos sees couples living together outside the "sanctity of matrimony" to be a sin on par with abuse and murder, while the Church of Traladara sees the relationship between man and woman to be "a personal matter, not involving the philosophies of the church." Both otherwise break down into "be a good person," similar to the basic (Lawful) teachings of most commonly practiced (real world) religions.

Mmm. I've got Game of Thrones on the mind at the moment, and I can't help but see certain analogues between Martin's major religions of Westeros and those of Karameikos. Aside from its lack of gods, the Church of Karameikos could easily substitute for the Faith of the Seven (or vice versa), and the Old Gods of the First Men for the Church of Traladara...heck, even the militant Order of the Griffon (in GAZ1) has an analogue in the Faith Militant of the ASOIAF novels. And there's a part of me that just says, well, this side-by-side dichotomy of competing but not-so-different faiths work pretty good in Martin's fiction, why not just let it stand in Karameikos?

Fervor is no substitute for
healing magic.
But then I remember that Martin's churches don't have spell-casting clerics. Only the fire cultists of Essos (followers of the "Lord of Light")...and they're the ones viewed as crazy persons in Westeros. D&D is not about rival churches competing for souls; its cosmology is based on sword & sorcery pulp not medieval Europe. The religions of the region should reflect that, in my opinion.

Despite Allston's care and thoughtfulness, I find his work on these churches to be a "miss." I'd re-skin the Church of Traladara as an ancient (and suppressed) religion of the goddess Petra, and the Church of Karameikos as something of a mishmash between the Faith of the Seven and the old Roman cult of Mithras. The Cult of Halav would indeed be a bunch of crazy folk (no clerics, as Halav is no god...nor even a demigod)...but perhaps something with the potential to become a new militant order of knighthood, like the Order of the Griffon, but for the worshippers of Petra.

Still, that's not really enough for a "typical" B/X campaign (if there is such a thing), which is generally filthy with random deities, cults, and strange faiths both ancient and new. A better model than Game of Thrones might be 1st century Jerusalem with its combined political and religious tensions. The "Church of Karameikos" is replaced with the polytheistic Roman pantheon imported from the Thyatian Empire by "true believers" who need a land outside the scandalous, political cesspool of the home nation to cultivate a "purer" form of worship. Heck, maybe they've brought an enclave of Vestal Virgins (because Vestal Virgins are awesome).

[of course, with multiple gods and multiple priesthoods, religious infighting and jockeying for political power (and influence with the Archduke) provides all sorts of nice little adventure hooks as churches hire adventurers to raid each others' temples]

Rather than a traditional thieves guild, the Traladarans have religious Zealots and "dagger men" working to overthrow their Imperial masters in the name of their goddess. Meanwhile the "shadow man of the woods" (the chaotic deity of Traladaran forests) woos malcontents and sociopaths from both cultures to his cause: the overthrow of Law and civilization. Evil druid-types, seeking a return to the wilderness and a more primal state of humanity...yeah, that's kind of cool.

Also some sort of toad god. Of course.

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